DEERFIELD BEACH, Fla. — In the Breezy Hill trailer park, John MacLean’s secretive ways were no secret. Although outwardly friendly with his French-Canadian snowbird neighbors, the 65-year-old mounted tiny security cameras all around his tidy bungalow, and he and his wife, Beatriz, did not socialize.
In the three years he knew him, Jacques Godin said the man next door offered up only one tidbit about his past: “He said he was a helicopter pilot.”
He was. But the tall, graying man with the pock-marked complexion and the New England accent was so much more: a convicted burglar who styled himself “Superthief,” a registered sex offender, and, according to police, a serial rapist who in the 1970s may have assaulted hundreds of South Florida women.
Now many of those cold cases are getting another look after Boca Raton police used DNA preserved from three 1970s rapes to link MacLean to the crimes. Arrested Oct. 19 at his home, MacLean is being held in the Palm Beach County jail without bond, charged with two armed sexual batteries that occurred in Boca Raton in October 1976 and February 1977.
In April 2010, police began looking at unsolved violent crimes, paying particular attention to sexual batteries in which preserved evidence could be tested for DNA. Among those cases were two rapes — one in 1976 involving two teenage sisters, the other in 1977 of a 24-year-old mother — in which the semen left on clothing was matched to MacLean.
Calling MacLean a person of interest in several other unsolved Boca Raton cases, Police Chief Dan Alexander said detectives would also reach out to other local law enforcement agencies that may want to reopen investigations.
Fort Lauderdale police may also be looking at MacLean again after a phone call Friday from one their retired detectives, Arthur McLellan. His dogged pursuit of a flamboyant burglar who wore a trademark cape helped send MacLean to prison the first time in 1979.
“He was brilliant, but one of those guys who was crazy brilliant,” said McLellan, 70, who now lives in North Carolina. “I’m glad to hear he finally got caught again. That man needs to be in jail.”
Fort Lauderdale police detective DeAnna Garcia acknowledged a call from McLellan and said that if new information is uncovered on old cases “we will absolutely follow up.”
Part of Jack MacLean’s story he has told himself. After being sentenced to 15 years in prison by a Broward County judge, the man with an IQ said to be in the 160s penned a how-to book called “Secrets of a Superthief.” In it he laid claim to stealing jewelry worth $133 million, owning airplanes, a helicopter and a go-fast boat, a vacation house in Maine, and outwitting police by having more sophisticated radio equipment than they did.
He did not mention rape.
While pursuing MacLean, McLellan said he shared with detectives from other South Florida agencies his suspicions that the burglar might also be the “Gentle Rapist,” who spoke softly to his victims and often wore a cape, mask or a wig while committing scores of sexual batteries from Miami to Gainesville. Among the unsolved rapes were cases in Hollywood, Plantation, Lauderdale-by-the-Sea and Palm Beach.
McLellan busted MacLean after the January 1979 theft of more than $1 million in jewels from the Coral Ridge Country Club home of Keith Wold, an ophthalmologist, and his wife, Elaine, a Johnson & Johnson heiress. At the time of the crime, McLellan marveled that any thief could beat a high-tech alarm system that could be triggered by weight, motion and heat sensors.
Yet what might have been the perfect crime was foiled because MacLean — who usually worked alone —this time enlisted three accomplices. In fleeing the house, one left behind a hand-held radio containing a custom-made crystal. McLellan traced the crystal to a local manufacturer and learned it had been ordered by MacLean.
McLellan said that none of the burglaries and robberies he worked involved sexual assaults, and thus he had no reason to confront MacLean about rapes.
But the detective had his suspicions. He recalls finding in MacLean’s Fort Lauderdale home a black cape, sewn by his then-girlfriend, and in the nightstand by the bed “more sex toys than you would find in a store.” McLellan said he told police in Miami-Dade County that MacLean drove a brown van similar to one spotted leaving the scene of a Broward County rape, and urged them to check it out.
But no agency made a case tying MacLean to a Gentle Rapist attack.
When MacLean got out of prison in April 1987, he moved to Arizona. There he was charged with armed burglary after police answering an alarm call found him hiding in nearby bushes. They recovered a wig and burglary tools from an adjacent yard.
A short time later he was charged with sexual exploitation of a minor after police say he posed as a photographer and solicited nude models. “Over 700 publications each month feature the sights of private areas, both male and female,” read his fliers. “Why not you?”
When two adolescent girls showed up, police say he took pornographic pictures, had intercourse with one and sexual contact with the other against her will.
In his trailer, police found thousands of photographs, many of minors, along with dozens of police scanners, maps and television monitors.
Sentenced to Arizona state prison in 1992, he was paroled in 2004 and returned to South Florida.
A native of Reading, Mass., MacLean told People magazine for a May 1992 profile that after high school he traveled with a carnival, running a rope-climbing game, before taking a locksmithing course and settling in Fort Lauderdale.
Of his burglary career, he said, “I stole from the wealthy so I could live their lifestyle.”
In the years before his arrest last month, MacLean’s lifestyle seemed modest. The aging doublewide he inherited from his mother is in need of fresh paint, and the flowers in concrete pots are bedraggled. His wife, Beatriz, did not answer the door last week, and the phone has been disconnected.
What McLellan remembers about MacLean was his brazenness, his hubris and his ego. “He was the ultimate con man,” said McLellan. “When I first interviewed him he said, ‘I’ll admit everything if you agree to drop all charges and we team up, go on the road and tell people how to protect themselves from robberies.’
“Quite obviously he was extremely intelligent. If he’d taken his intelligence and channeled it toward a legal lifestyle, he’d be a millionaire.”
Staff researcher Barbara Hijek contributed to this report.
(c)2012 the Sun Sentinel (Fort Lauderdale, Fla.)
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